Human rights activist Sakae Menda passed away this week from natural causes at the age of 95, seventy years after being sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Tried and convicted of a double homicide, the Kumamoto Prefecture-native spent 34 years awaiting his execution before being acquitted in 1983.

The first person to be released from death row by retrial in Japan, he spent much of his later years lobbying for the abolition of capital punishment and calling for changes to the judicial system in Japan, giving speeches at home and abroad. 

Falsely Accused

Menda was 23 when he was first charged by the police for stealing rice in 1948. A seemingly open-and-shut case then became complicated as he was asked about the savage slaying of a Buddhist priest (76) and his wife (48) in the nearby hot-spring town of Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto. They’d been killed by an axe and knife while their two children, aged 12 and 14, had been left injured. 

An illiterate black market rice dealer, Menda said he’d been at a guest house with a teenage prostitute on December 30, the day of the killings. It later came to light that the police, who she had reportedly been paying protection money, made her testify that their encounter had happened on a different day. 

“Through coercion, extortion, leading questions, and brutal force, they were determined to elicit a confession.”

The accused maintained his innocence but was eventually strong-armed into confessing after 23 days of interrogation without a lawyer, during which time he was starved of food, water and sleep and beaten with a bamboo stick while being suspended upside down from a ceiling. According to his diary, written while he was in prison, one interrogator threatened to “break his head with a 1.8-liter glass sake bottle,” if he didn’t admit to the crime. 

“During my interrogation, investigators were divided into three teams, each taking it in turns to interrogate me,” recalled Menda at an Amnesty International panel discussion at the UN building in New York. “Through coercion, extortion, leading questions, and brutal force, they were determined to elicit a confession.” 

“When I claimed my alibi, the prosecutor said to me, ‘Do not lie. The more you lie, the heavier the crime. Tell the truth and do penance for your crime. You will go to hell so long as you choose to lie.’ He was not willing to believe anything I had to say. As I was denying the charges, the prosecutor should have at least investigated the facts.”

On March 23, 1950, Judge Haruo Kinoshita sentenced Menda to death by hanging, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1951. Prior to the trial he was only visited by a lawyer once. He happened to be a Buddhist lawyer, who rather than offer legal advice, simply told Menda to accept his fate and that he would pray for him. 

Menda was held in a constantly monitored 5-square-meter cell that was lit night and day and was without a heater. Under the Japanese Penal Code 1907, death row inmates can be taken to the gallows at any time with little notice and Menda lived in constant fear that he would be next. 

“The morning of the day of an execution is extremely eerie,” he told a colleague. “It’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then, prison guards come in bursts and the prison cell is opened with a clang.” 

Determined to continue fighting, Menda sought a retrial six times while in prison. The case was eventually reopened in September 1979. Just under four years later, the then 54-year-old was cleared of the charges against him as he had falsely confessed, and the prosecutors had not only attempted to conceal his alibi but also failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. 

The innocent man was given ¥700 for each day he spent in prison (totaling around ¥90 million). He donated half of that to a group campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. 

Forced confessions

The following year, two more men in Japan were released from death row. Like Menda, Shigeyoshi Taniguchi and Yukio Saito were forced to confess to murder and subsequently spent a combined total of 58 years awaiting capital punishment. 

They were both exonerated in 1984 after it was revealed that the police had refused to release negatives of crucial evidence in the latter’s case and had produced no evidence to connect the bloodstains with the murder victim in the Taniguchi case. Though these miscarriages of justice made headlines in Japan, they didn’t lead to a significant debate about capital punishment in this country. 

In 1989, Masao Akahori became the fourth death row inmate to be released. A 24-year-old homeless man living under a bridge, he was accused of raping and murdering a schoolgirl in 1954. 

“‘Do not lie. The more you lie, the heavier the crime.'”

After a confession was physically beaten out of him, he says he spent much of his time in prison wondering when his turn would come. On one occasion, the guards entered his cell by mistake. Dragging him away, they then realized they’d got the wrong room. Akahori says he couldn’t speak for years after that.

The most recent person to walk free after being sentenced to death was former boxer Iwao Hakamada who spent a world record 46 years on death row for the murders of four people in a house in Shizuoka. 

In 2014, he was granted a retrial and immediate release after it was revealed that the evidence used against him had been falsified. Interrogated for a total of 264 hours in 23 days, during which time he was denied water or toilet breaks, he eventually confessed before later retracting his statement, saying he had been coerced into it. 

Who knows how many others have been wrongly sentenced to death in Japan? Convicted of mass poisoning at Teikoku Bank (known as Teigin) in 1948, many felt tempera painter Sadamichi Hirasawa was innocent and as a result, no justice minister would ever sign his death warrant. He eventually died of pneumonia in 1987 though his son continued to try to clear his name until his own death in 2013. 

Masaru Okunishi also died of natural causes after 46 years on death row. Accused of killing five women and injuring twelve by poison, he withdrew his confession and was acquitted of the crime due to a lack of evidence in 1964. This was then overturned by the Supreme Court five years later. 

He appealed the decision seven times and was granted a retrial by the Nagoya Criminal Court before it was discontinued after an appeal by the prosecutor. Amnesty International believed this decision was made so public confidence in the use of the death penalty wouldn’t be undermined. 

The one common theme running through all these cases is a lack of concrete evidence and the fact that all the defendants were forced into confessing before changing their pleas. Prosecutors, dealing with low prosecutorial budgets, will only take cases to court if they’re sure of winning (hence why there’s a conviction rate of over 99 percent). To get it that far, it’s essential they get the suspect to admit to the crime. 

The methods used to procure these confessions continue to be called into question. Amendments have been made to the pretrial detention process such as the introduction of audio/video recording (in limited cases) so the violence used in the past by the prosecutors is a lot less likely these days. Defense lawyers are also given more access to their clients. 

For critics, though, these changes haven’t gone nearly far enough. They feel there’s still a lack of transparency and far too much emphasis placed on confessions. More than anything, they believe the daiyo kangoku (substitute prison) system, in which suspects can be held without charge for 23 days, needs to be abolished. Were he still alive and healthy, Menda would be banging that drum louder than anyone. 

“I’d like the judicial authorities to perform their duties properly,” he said in an interview with Mainichi Shimbun in 2018. “Mine wasn’t a confession. The police compiled a deposition and said that I must have done it that way. If I hadn’t been arrested, I would have become an ordinary farmer. But there is no helping that now.”